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Wow, I guess I had a big break from blogging there. Part of the reason is that I was busy with end-of-term stuff, part of it was that I kept getting sick, part of it was that I was in Russia without regular internet access for two weeks, and part of it was that I just wasn’t in the mood. But here we are.

We took the ferry and the train to and from St. Petersburg. It took a long time, but it was nice, especially on the way back when all the cheap cabins on the ferry were sold out and we sprang for a nice one. It was an interesting study in demographics. On the way there, December 23rd, there were very few Scandinavian-looking people on the boat. All the Swedes and Finns were home with their families. It was the immigrant boat. Girls in head scarves speaking Finnish. On the way back, January 5, it was the Russian tourist boat.

Russia was interesting as usual. I realized that if we’re going to stay in Sweden and I’m only going to go to Russia once a year, it ought to be in late spring or summer, NOT December/January. Yes, I did once vow to spend all New Years in Russia, but really, it’s more about having people around than where you are. So the plan is to have everyone come here next New Year.

The effects of the financial crisis were more apparent in St. Petersburg than here in the bubble of small-town Sweden. Our friends had stories of their workplaces downsizing, several had been given an extra “vacation” (without pay) or received a pay cut. There seemed to be fewer cars on the road, which is only good for traffic and the environment, but a sign of tough times nonetheless. In general, things felt more subdued than when we left eleven months ago. As a visitor, it was kind of nice. But we realized that if we had stayed in St. Petersburg instead of coming to Sweden, we’d be unemployed now too – companies are trying to save money by cutting back on “extras” like English lessons for their employees.

The week after New Year is one long national holiday in Russia. The thing to do is stay up late, sleep til afternoon, eat leftovers, go out somewhere shopping or to the movies or to a cafe, get drunk, and do it all over again. We saw two Russian movies in the theater and two on DVD while we were there. Here are my reviews.

Obitaemiy Ostrov (Inhabited Island) – Sci-fi dystopia based on a classic novel. It was supposed to be the New Year’s Blockbuster. It didn’t impress me much. I thought the special effects were crappy and hackneyed, but it did make me want to read the book, so that’s something.

Stilyagi – This film RULED! I hope they release it internationally. It’s a musical, and I hate musicals, but I liked this film. It’s about youths in 1950s Moscow who embraced jazz and dancing and brightly-colored clothes, enduring harassment from their peers in the Komsomol. So it’s kind of political, but the main reason I liked it is that it was just really well done visually.

The following are the films I saw on DVD. They’re a couple years old, but you probably haven’t seen them, so I’ll review them. :-)

Bumazhniy Soldat (Paper Soldier) – artsy fartsy film about how members of the intelligentsia participated in the development of the Soviet space program by standing around in puddles smoking cigarettes.

Vdokh Vydokh (Inhale Exhale) – artsy fartsy film in which a guy hires his ex-wife as a prostitute. They had gotten divorced because the ex-wife had had a lesbian love affair which consisted of a lot of skipping around in the forest, pillow fights and giggling. A pile of utter nonsense, but visually appealing.

So that was my trip to Russia. I got valenki (felt boots) from Kostia’s mom for New Year, will try to get around to taking a picture of myself in them. In the meantime, here are some other photos:


Kostia’s hometown. They stopped building the building on the left when the Soviet Union collapsed. On the right you can see part of the sign for “Trendy Cafe”.


Obligatory picture of the Church on Spilled Blood


“Now it’s a holiday, the rest of the year – gray everyday life?”


View of Nevsky Prospect and Griboyedov Canal from Dom Knigi

Yesterday I made poor Kostia watch the film “White Nights” which, as you may know, is not an adaptation of the Dostoyevsky short story, but rather one of the most absurd screenplays in the history of cinema. In a nutshell, a Soviet ballet star who has defected to the US (Mikhail Baryshnikov) is on a plane which crash-lands in the Soviet Union, and the evil Soviets try to keep him there, making an American tap dancer who has defected to the Soviet Union (Gregory Hines) be his guard and companion.

I wanted to watch it because it made a big impression on me 20 years ago. It was one of those movies that got steady rotation on HBO for awhile and then disappeared from our lives, and I think it contributed to my fascination with the Soviet Union, and my decision to study Russian in junior high school.

It’s always funny to watch a film that you thought was cool when you were a kid, knowing it’s going to be really bad. But now that I’ve spent time in both St. Petersburg and Helsinki it was neat to be able to identify which shots were stock footage of Leningrad and which were actually Helsinki, where they shot the film. They did a pretty good job of making things look real and Russian, except that Baryshnikov’s apartment was way too fancy even for a Soviet ballet star of the time. The non-Russian actors had obviously been well-coached on their Russian – although they spoke with accents, their intonation was solid and it was possible to understand what they were saying (unlike, say, Sean Connery in “The Hunt For Red October” who had obviously just interpreted the transliteration in his script for himself. Nobody coaches the Sean Connery, I guess).

Also, the dancing was amazing. I can appreciate that now in a way that I couldn’t when I was 11 years old and tap dancing seemed to be the lamest thing on earth.

But the plot was still ridiculous, and the soundtrack… whose idea was that soundtrack? I managed to amuse Kostia by singing along to “Say You, Say Me”, though. Why does the brain retain lyrics to terrible 80s songs and not, say, the ability to do calculus? Sigh.

It’s a working day here, but on the other hand, in the Russian pre-new-year’s flurry of activity a lot of my students have cancelled their lessons, so I’m having a relaxed week. The best part is that I don’t have any morning lessons, so I can sleep until 10, when there’s some light in the sky. Of course, I’m not earning as much money, but on the other hand I’m still earning more this week than I did in a week when I worked 40+ hours at that horribly exploitative kindergarten (though apparently salaries have improved there now), so I can’t complain.

Kostia and I had “the full cultural program” last weekend. On Saturday night we went to see Akvarium (check out that web site, it’s got six language options including Esperanto), which is really just one man, Boris Grebenshikov, since he writes all the songs and lyrics and the rest of the band’s personnel has changed over the past 35 years. It was a good concert, but I was a little disappointed because I kind of expected it to be The Best Concert Ever, since Grebenshikov is the God (or perhaps more aptly, the Buddha, since he’s all into the eastern religions) of Russian rock, and this is entirely deserved – his albums are incredible. In order to be the the best concert ever, though, it would have needed more energy, more polished playing on the part of the band and a better sound engineer. Kostia also suggested that for it to be the best concert ever we should have been standing in the orchestra pit rather than sitting in the theater seats, and drunk. Maybe so. Still, it was a good concert. Perhaps the most interesting part was seeing such a high concentration of nerds and hippies in one place – it was certainly a different part of St. Petersburg society than that which I usually see.

The second part of the full cultural program was going to see the sequel to “The Irony of Fate” on Sunday. It hasn’t received good reviews, but I actually enjoyed it a lot. The premise is weak and the sequel is only watchable as a sequel and not as a stand-alone film, but as a modern take (or perhaps parody) on the original it was really funny and well-done. Most importantly, it puts you in the New Year’s mood.

Last night Kostia and I celebrated Western Christmas by watching “Love Actually” and drinking Bailey’s. If you’ve seen it you know that this is an embarrassingly stupid movie, but Kostia really loves it for some reason and I find it amusing and don’t mind looking at certain British actors, so it seems watching it has become a Christmas tradition. 

That’s what it was like, this movie Rusalka (Mermaid) that I saw today. If you’ve seen both Amelie and Lilia 4-ever, you’ll find it hard to believe that the two could go together, but this film really is a whimsical post-Soviet tragedy. It was really good, sometimes funny, sometimes heartwarming, but not cheerful. Recommenduyu.


Article here:

Purple Haze Baffles Swedish Town

Sorry I haven’t been writing much lately. Things here are fine, just not terribly noteworthy.

We watched a really hilarious DVD the other night:

Tristram Shandy

And had a very nice Swedish beer last night:

Carnegie Stark Porter

About This Blog

I'm an American who started blogging when I moved to Russia in 2004. Eventually I moved to Sweden, where life is pleasant but uneventful, and stopped blogging for lack of interesting things to say. And then I joined Facebook, which further destroyed any motivation for blogging. Maybe someday I'll start blogging again, but for now, this blog is dormant, an archive of The Russia Years: 2004-2008.

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September 2020